Modern Leadership: What Worked Then Doesn’t Work Now

5 minute read

Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding about leadership we encounter daily is, leading is synonymously presented as the ability to control something—whether it’s money, people, process, or agenda. This notion perpetuates a complex of behaviors we call the Command and Control style of leadership.

Command and Control is a paramilitary model that has been around for centuries. It’s the idea that the person in charge calls the shots, and everyone underneath him follows orders without question. It’s the system that gave us, “I say ‘jump,’ and you say ‘how high?’”

While this philosophy was incredibly effective for hundreds of years, we know that workplace values have shifted dramatically, and leadership in today’s business world requires an entirely different psychological strategy than it once did. Today, we understand that true leadership occurs in the space of human connection.

Let us show you what we mean.

Once, while interviewing a potential coachee’s subordinate during a 360 review (our typical first step in the coaching process), the subordinate proudly declared that she and her supervisor were not “blue” people. She was referring to the company-wide personality assessment that divided results into color-coded personality types, in which the blue category represented personalities dominated by sensitivity, caring, and compassion. This Human Resources employee was proud that she and her boss were not, in her words, “loving, compassionate, poem-writing people, like a lot of people are in HR.” No, sir! They were transactional, get-it-done, check-the-box people!

Can you guess what kind of feedback the other individuals participating in this 360 evaluation gave?

In another case, a person we interviewed for a 360 evaluation remarked that our coachee-to-be—his supervisor—did not connect well with others. This interviewee was a young man and a former Marine, who relayed that when he was a Sergeant, his Major once saw him chewing out his platoon, took him aside, and explained that old-school chewing-out really doesn’t work anymore. The Major when on to explain, Generation X and younger generations don’t respond to being told to jump with “how high?” They need to understand “why” and they need to have connection to their teammates.

This young former Marine learned and now understood—even better than the person who was supervising him—that 21st Century Leadership requires a genuine connection between leaders and followers. He understood that engaging the workforce requires a different kind of conversation today; the old-school command and control days are over.

Our coaching practice helps clients understand the difference between simple management and true leadership:

Management is the accomplishment of pre-determined objectives through others;
Leadership is the art of getting others to do what we want them to do
because they want to do it.

There is an element of willingness present in leadership that is not in management. In rare circumstances, especially when time is constrained and the outcome is mission-critical, simple management is appropriate, ergo the manager says “Jump!” and their subordinates say “How high?” But leaders understand what motivates their team members, and where their teammates are hoping to go in the future. They have quality, personal, caring conversations with their team members that elevate their relationships beyond manager-subordinate to leader-follower.

Here’s an example of what happens when these elevated conversations don’t occur:

We once consulted for a large technical services company, in which the CEO was so pleased with their coaching outcomes that they enlisted us to coach the company’s CFO. When we completed the 360 evaluation for the CFO, every respondent indicated that they wanted him to strengthen his relationship skills. Consequently, our first assignment to him was to spend 30 minutes every Monday morning talking with his direct reports. Specifically, we asked him to spend 5 minutes with each team member, finding out how they are doing, asking about their weekend, asking after their family, etc. There was one catch: he was only allowed to ask about work-related items in the last 30 seconds of the conversation.

When we met with him the next week for a follow up on how the exercise went, he confessed he hadn’t done it. The following week, he still had not done it. At the third follow up meeting, the CFO explained that he just had so much on his plate, he could not see the point in spending his time this way. He was so transactionally driven, he quite simply did not see the value in connecting with those he would lead.

At this point we knew the coaching relationship would have to end prematurely, because we know that the old adage “before they care how much you know, they must know how much you care” (despite its corniness) is absolutely true in 21st Century Leadership. While we don’t expect coaching to change a person’s fundamental personality, we do encourage coachees to modify their behavior in the workplace to achieve the success they profess to desire. In cases such as these, when the coachee refuses to embrace a leadership style that will encourage followers, we question whether the coachee is the right fit for jobs that require leading others.

In short, the business world is rapidly changing. It’s not our parents’ workplace anymore; today, every professional—every employee—has infinite choices of where to take their talents. Workers today can even choose to be their own boss, their own leader, by choosing to have a freelance career. In other words, in order for managers to build competitive teams, they must be able to offer a compelling, fulfilling experience in the workplace. And you don’t give workers that by commanding and controlling them.

For this week: What Command and Control-type elements are present in your workplace? What are the cultural norms, policies, relationships, and practices that still communicate—subtly or not—that leadership is the ability to control?